Buyer plans to restore Hoover Center

Envisions landmark as possible residence, museum site

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Jonathon Nagel stands in front of the 128-year-old Hoover Center building in Hancock, which he purchased after the closure of Finlandia University last year. He is living in the building while he restores it, which he estimates could take four to five years.

HANCOCK — A Hancock landmark is being preserved and renovated to its former glory.

The Hoover Center building on Quincy Street was bought by Jonathon Nagel earlier this year after the closure of Finlandia University.

A self-described “architecture and historic preservation geek,” Nagel had taken note of the building on his bike rides around town after moving to Hancock from Colorado several years ago. When Finlandia closed, Nagel worried buyers would hack the building up into student rental units, or purchase it solely for the lot and tear the building down.

He decided he couldn’t have that.

“It was certainly an unplanned purchase for me and something that I just felt I had to do,” he said. “Not only just because it’s an architectural masterpiece, but because it’s also just been a part of this community for so long.”

It dates back to 1895, when it was built by William Washburn, who owned a clothing store in town. The lavish house was built in the Queen Anne Victorian style.

While it has a small number of bedrooms for the size of the house, it has a large amount of space set aside for entertainment, including a ballroom on all three levels.

“It was a house that was designed for entertainment, certainly, and certainly a house that was not designed with any mind for expense,” Nagel said.

After about a decade, Washburn sold it to Edward Lieblein, a wholesale grocer. It stayed in the Lieblein family until 1979, when Lieblein’s son sold it to Suomi College, later Finlandia University.

It stayed in Finlandia’s ownership until it closed last year. It housed the president’s office, as well as several other university posts.

It was named as a Michigan State Historic Site in 1979, and added to the National Register of Historic Places a year later.

“There’s a lot of people who have memories and connections to this property, and it is a piece of this community,” Nagel said. “It helps contribute to our sense of place, and what makes Hancock special.”

Restoring the building could take four or five years, “and probably several lifetimes after that to really perfect it,” Nagel said.

His first priority is to do as accurate of a historical restoration as possible. He noted some of the obvious problems visible from the road: a leaky roof with shingles blowing onto the yard, a peeling paint job.

Although much of the character of the interior is intact, there are still daunting tasks, Nagel said. Leaks in the walls have made most of the plumbing nonfunctional, and it also needs electrical upgrades.

While Nagel’s getting the property back in shape, he’s going to be living there.

“That was kind of the deal I made with myself that I could justify this unplanned purchase,” he said. “I could cut my own living expenses if I did it in there and be able to reinvest more into the property and get it where I want it.”

Nagel doesn’t have firm plans yet for what the building will be. It would be a great site for a museum, or headquarters for a nonprofit or historical society, he said. Or it might return to its original purpose as a single-family home.

He prefers that to commercial use, which would require more extensive modifications.

During Finlandia’s tenure, it had mostly used the existing house as an office, Nagel said.

“About the worst they did was some commercial carpeting over some hardwood and some fluorescent light fixtures, but really, they just used a house as an office building,” he said. “Thankfully, while it was neglected, it wasn’t abused or modified. And from a preservation standpoint, that gives me the best possible starting place I could ask for for a 128-year-old structure.”

Most of the restoration work will be done by Nagel, who has restored several other structures.

A minimalist, detail-oriented carpenter, his upcoming tasks include mimicking missing or damaged trim work on the grand staircase and regrouting original tile work.

He’ll reach out to a specialized company for the roof. He plans to either use wood shake or, if approved by the State Historic Preservation Office, a stone-coated steel roof that will mimic wood shake.

The roof comes with its issues, Nagel said, particularly the iconic tower. It’s the “defining character of this house,” he said, but also a bad fit for the climate, with recurring ice damming issues and leaks.

“That’s going to be a very careful one to try to figure out how to preserve the original architectural, visual nature of that part of the roof, but then also prevent damage and make sure it’s going to last,” he said.

Nagel hopes to hold occasional open houses so the building can remain accessible to the community.

“My goal is that it’s still accessible in some fashion to the community that it’s a part of,” he said. “I’m just a geek who loves old houses, and has really fallen in love with this one, and just wants to see it have a bright future, which I didn’t see happening. And I felt like I had to step in to prevent anything from happening to it.”

People can also send Nagel their memories of the house or vintage photographs to a new email address he set up at LiebleinHouse@gmail.com.

“I would love all of that, because I think it would be important to document,” he said.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today